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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scans, Pat Downs, Obama, and Taxes

The majority of American frequent fliers seem to be taking the new TSA security screening procedures in stride.

Three key conclusions from our recent USA Today/Gallup Poll: 1) Most frequent fliers say that the invasion of privacy is worth the benefit of stopping terrorists, 2) there has been no uptick in self-reported avoidance of flying compared to January, and 3) relatively few travelers are angry about the full body scans or the pat downs. (See here for a full analysis by my colleague Lymari Morales). Taken as a whole, the data show less concern than might be expected given the huge buzz of publicity about the procedures.

Understanding the degree to which such buzz represents more general public opinion is one of the major functions of scientific polling. Highly vocal minorities of people, aided and abetted by media focused on building dramatic story lines in order capture attention and generate clicks, can make it seem as if the whole country shares their concerns. Often that is not the case.

President Barack Obama’s job approval rating remains remarkably steady -- in the mid-40s -- showing little sustained change for months now.

There have been some short-term ups and downs, but from a broad perspective, not much sustained change.
I looked back at the job approval ratings of previous presidents following their first midterm elections.
  • George W. Bush -- Nov. 22-24, 2002 -- 65%
  • Bill Clinton -- Nov. 28-29, 1994 -- 43%
  • George H.W. Bush -- Nov. 15-18, 1990 -- 54%
  • Ronald Reagan -- Nov. 19-22, 1982 -- 43%
  • Jimmy Carter -- Nov. 10-13, 1978 -- 52%
  • Richard Nixon -- Nov. 12-17, 1970 -- 57%
  • John Kennedy -- Nov. 16-21, 1962 -- 74%
  • Dwight Eisenhower -- Nov. 11-16, 1954 -- 57%
Obama’s current ratings put him roughly in the same region as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan at this point after their first midterm elections. Notably, both went on to be re-elected easily for their second terms. The two presidents who did not get re-elected for second terms -- George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter -- had higher ratings after their first midterm election than Clinton or Reagan. This underscores the conclusion that Obama’s job approval ratings at this point in his presidency provide little insight into his probability of winning re-election.

Gallup’s running 30-day calculation of unemployment continues to drop. As of Nov. 15, the rolling average dropped to 9.2%, and by the beginning of this week continued to fall to below 9.0%. These Gallup unemployment data are not seasonally adjusted, which is a significant factor given that some of the drop in unemployment may be caused by Christmas holiday hiring. Still, Gallup analysts believe that some of the current down-tick in unemployment does reflect some non-seasonal factors.

This suggests the government may report a drop in unemployment for November. Stay tuned for continuing updates on this measure.
Americans have a fairly clear message to Congress. Anything to do with taxes is number one on the priority list for members of the lame-duck Congress. That includes specifically keeping the estate tax from jumping back up after the end of the year, and doing something to avoid the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

Which leads to an important conclusion. Given the quite low esteem in which Congress is held by Americans at this point, doing nothing on both of these tax fronts (i.e., letting the estate tax jump back up and letting the Bush tax cuts expire) could result in a very upset American public.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Principles, Compromise, or Something in Between?

No great surprise, but 2012 election politics are beginning to percolate up and through the thinking of politicians and political parties here in Washington. Republican politicians are jockeying for positioning as they look ahead covetously to the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Political operatives are calculating the odds of more significant change in the composition of the House and Senate as a result of 2012 voting.  President Obama's advisors are beginning to lay plans for his expected reelection effort.

Meanwhile, there's business as usual in Washington.  The lame-duck Congress is back in session, with the looming day ahead when the new Congress takes its place next January. Political calculations are permeating the thinking of all involved.

These political calculations have a major influence on the highly important issue of compromise, one of the two biggest issues facing Congress at the moment (the other is the appropriate role of the Federal government in trying to fix societal problems). There are pressures from both ends of the political spectrum for legislation and executive actions that mirror in a non-compromising way the political convictions of those segments. This comes from the Tea Party supporters and conservatives on the right, and from liberal Democrats on the left. Politicians who stray from these convictions find it harder to generate support from these influential and activist wings of their parties.

From a broad perspective, this is the way our government operates -- balancing convictions from different segments into collectively agreed upon legislation. But this assumes the parties involved recognize that the ultimate outcome is usually going to be compromise rather than exactly what they want. If elected representatives don't recognize that fact of life, then sticking to convictions and principles leads to gridlock and stalemate.

We can view this as a spectrum -- ranging from the view that principles are what matter regardless of what does or does not get done, to the view that getting things done is what matters, even if principles are compromised.

We've tested where the public stands on that spectrum. Taken as a whole the American public is closer to the compromise end of the spectrum than to the stick-to-your-principles-regardless end of the spectrum. Given a 5-point scale, just 27% of Americans tilt toward the idea of sticking to one’s principles even if little gets done. The rest are closer to the end of the scale arguing for compromise even if that means backing down on one's principles.

Sticking to principles has a proud history in the U.S. But a government representing the masses of everyone usually ends up being somewhat messily in the middle. Government works when representatives both fight for principles and then agree to compromise. If there is no compromise, in a situation in which the people of the country as a whole are spread out across the ideological and political spectrum, then government works less well. And of course, from the people's perspective at this point in history, the government is not working very well at all. Congress approval is at 17%. I wouldn't anticipate much improvement in that perception if Congress doesn't shift the way it works.

Keep in mind that one of the top five most important problems facing the country today, according to responses volunteered by the American people, is "dissatisfaction with government." We can look at the actual verbatim responses of those who talked about this when asked to name the top problem. Here are some examples: "People [Congress] don't compromise. As we go we have stupid things like the fact that Congress left without taking care of taxes," "compromise between politicians," "a broken political system," "Being one, just truly being able to come together both political sides are fighting and not trying to compromise," "too divided in terms of parties," "combative nature of two main political parties," "Congress can't do anything," "I don't like the Democrats and Republicans fighting," "lack of working together," "learn how to cooperate with each other," "they're too busy worrying about their own interests instead of the good of the country," "Congress not able to pass anything," "government is wavering back and forth between the Republicans and the Democrats; don't seem to want to compromise anything."

This last point is quite important. Control of government has been ping-ponging back and forth in recent elections as the voters try first one party and then the other. If partisan fighting and unwillingness to compromise continue, then we can expect more shifts in the 2012 election. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with whole institution of representative government, now at or near record lows, may get even worse.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Americans and the Jobs Problem

Each month we ask Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. Responses are placed into categories. This month, the response category of “jobs” has (slightly) edged out the "economy" as the top. In other words, slightly more Americans say "jobs" or "unemployment" when asked to name the most important problem than say "the economy."

This is only the third month in which this has happened since the recession hit in 2008. This is not a big deal in the big picture, since both jobs and the economy are part and parcel of an even-larger umbrella category of economic mentions -- a category which totaled 69% in November (i.e., 69% of Americans mentioned some aspect of the economy as the nation's top problem). Still, the specific category “jobs” has percolated up to 33% mentions after being in the low 20%s last June and July. The "economy", a general category, is mentioned by 31% of respondents.

This poll was conducted at a time in which Americans’ economic confidence has been improving. In fact, our Economic Confidence Index is now at -19 (Nov. 9 update), which is as positive as it has been since last May. Gallup's Economic Confidence Index was way down from a -33 as recently as the week before the election in late October.

Why might "jobs" be up some in terms of Americans' mentions of the top problems facing the country? It may be that the salience of Friday’s government unemployment news was fresh on some respondents' minds as they answered this question -- although some interviewing was conducted Thursday night before the report was made public Friday morning. Otherwise, it may simply reflect continuing concern about employment.

We are still faced with the question, of course, about what to do to improve the jobs and employment picture.

Here’s what President Obama said in his press conference on Wednesday:

I think that there is no doubt that people’s number-one concern is the economy. And what they were expressing great frustration about is the fact that we haven’t made enough progress on the economy. We’ve stabilized the economy. We’ve got job growth in the private sectors. But people all across America aren’t feeling that progress. They don't see it. And they understand that I’m the President of the United States, and that my core responsibility is making sure that we’ve got an economy that's growing, a middle class that feels secure, that jobs are being created. And so I think I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make.

President Obama is right on in his diagnosis that the economy is the people’s number-one concern -- as I reviewed above. But what about his assertion that it is his “core responsibility” to make sure that “ . . . jobs are being created”?

We do have some data that speak to the general issue of the role of the federal government in attacking the jobs problem.

In our September Gallup Governance survey, we asked Americans to indicate how much responsibility they felt government should have for a list of different challenges facing society. One of these was “Making sure that all those who want jobs have them.” Here’s what we found:

So we have a little more than half -- 51% -- of Americans who tilt toward the total responsibility end of this scale when it comes to creating jobs. Only 27% tilt toward the no responsibility end of the scale. That would seem to suggest that the average American tilts toward getting the government involved in doing something about the employment situation in this country.

There are, as can be seen, differences across party lines.

About three-quarters of Democrats tilt toward “total responsibility,” contrasted with 40% of Republicans. So we know that Democrats are more oriented toward government actions in this arena than Republicans -- a not particularly shocking finding. But, even among Republicans, only 39% tilt toward the “no responsibility” end. So there is definitely at least some sentiment among GOPers that the government should do something about jobs.

Which, of course, leads us to the final question: what exactly should the government do about jobs? That's the key issue, of course. Some might argue that the government could help create jobs by more passive means such as providing tax cuts for all businesses.  Others might argue that the government could help create jobs by more active means such as stimulus spending. Same theoretical outcome; much different methods.

When we recently gave Americans a choice among four specific actions that should be Congress' priority after the election, "passing a new economic stimulus bill designed to create jobs" got more choices than any of the others listed -- but even that was only at 38%. Republicans, for example, were very unlikely to say that federal stimulus spending should be the priority, opting instead for cutting federal spending and repealing the healthcare reform act. Which helps underscore how difficult it is going to be for the new Congress to figure out exactly what it wants to do to help fix the nation's number one problem.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Healthcare Reform, the Tea Party, and the Federal Government

Here's a follow-up on a few items of interest.

Healthcare Reform Bill

I talked in this space a few weeks ago about American attitudes toward the healthcare reform bill passed earlier this year. This bill is a key issue in this campaign, the second highest rated issue by Democrats, and the third highest among Republicans and independents. When we ask Americans what it is they wish the federal government should not do that it is doing now, healthcare is at the top of the list.

My previous post reviewed a number of recent polls on the healthcare reform bill. Four of the five I reviewed showed a net negative reaction to the bill. The one which, at that point, stood out was the September tracking update conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. It showed a 49% to 40% favorable over unfavorable margin on the healthcare bill. This month (October) the Kaiser update settled back down again to roughly where it was in August, with a slight 44% to 42% unfavorable over favorable impression. That's in line with most other polling on the bill. The Kaiser tracking data make it clear that opinions on the bill may be somewhat labile, but I think it's fair to say that, so far, we have no evidence of majority support for the bill.

The Obama administration views the bill as a valuable contribution to the American people's wellbeing. The Obama administration believes that support will rise as the benefits of the bill become evident in the months and years ahead. Of course, that's why we will continue to monitor support going forward. But in terms of election politics, the midterm vote is nigh upon us, not in the future. It is the current views of the healthcare bill that have become the pivotal issue on the campaign trail.

The Federal Government

One of the controversial aspects of the healthcare reform act is its involvement of the U.S. government in that particular aspect of U.S. life. The appropriate role of the federal government as the instrument to guide social progress and solve social problems is a very significant issue to Americans. We have another confirmation of how this issue divides Americans from recent survey results written up by my colleague Jeff Jones. The striking finding is that very, very few Democrats chose the “size and power of the federal government” as the most important issue driving their vote in the midterm election. On the other hand, this is the second most important issue to Republicans, after economic conditions. We have found this wide partisan divide consistently in our research on Americans’ relationships with their government. It’s a hugely important variable in American society today.

Economic Confidence

Americans' positive views about the U.S. economy are picking up marginally, but probably not enough nor soon enough to have a meaningful effect on the midterm elections. The improvement in our latest weekly averages shows a mild pick-up in consumer confidence and our job creation index remains in relatively positive territory.

Key Indicators: Satisfaction, Congress, and Presidential Approval

Satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. and job approval of Congress are low on an absolute basis, but better now than in 2008. Congress approval reached its all time low of 14% in July 2008. Satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. reached 7% in October 2008, also the lowest on record. Both of these measures came in the middle of 2008 presidential election campaigning in which rhetoric was flying around and at a time when the economic recession was initially being recognized. Today? Congress approval has risen to 21% and satisfaction with the way things are going is at 22%.

Obama's job approval is not the lowest of his administration (as was announced on one cable news show). In fact, in our most recent tracking update, he's at 45%, basically holding his own.

Tea Partiers

The percent of Americans who are supporters of the Tea Party is down slightly in our recent polling. The latest two Gallup polls have shown that 26% of Americans say they are supporters of the Tea Party. That is, by a couple of points, the lowest we have measured in five surveys since March. As has been the case in the past, 57% of Tea Party supporters are Republicans, 35% independents, and a lonely 7% are Democrats. On the other hand, 62% of those who say they are opposed to the Tea Party are Democrats, 30% independents, and a lonely 7% are Republicans.

Smoking and Religion

Religion is highly related to smoking. The relationship between church attendance and smoking is, in fact, a straight linear function. Among those who attend church weekly, 12% smoke (this is based on an analysis of about 30,000 interviews conducted as part of the Gallup Daily tracking in September). Among those who attend almost every week, 15% smoke, among those who attend monthly 21% smoke, among those who seldom attend 27% smoke, and among those who never attend religious services 30% smoke. So the smoking rate is twice as high among those who never attend church as it is among those who attend church weekly. Everything relates to politics, of course, in this season, so it is perhaps fitting that I remind you that President Obama still smokes at last report and Republican minority House Leader John Boehner definitely smokes. If the Republicans win control of the House and Boehner becomes speaker, we will have the president and the man second in line to succeed the president who are part of the relative minority of adults who smoke. Religiously speaking, Boehner is a Catholic. Obama is a Christian by choice but with unclear denominational affiliation. I'm not sure how either would score on two questions that we use to measure religiosity, but we know that the president has not been a frequent church attender since occupying the White House.

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